Tag Archives: luke roberts

J H Prynne and the English Intelligencer

Plough Match 2012 Julian Winslow

I’m a bit worried about Mountain Press. I’ve got all four of their titles and I don’t see how they can possibly maintain this level of quality, unless Neil Pattison does the decent thing and publishes the work that he’s written in the last five years. Their current list has work by three of the very best poets under the age of thirty which I’ll be returning to in the near future and ‘Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer’ which is edited by Neil, Reitha Pattison and Like Roberts.

As with Pierre Joris’ work on Celan’s notes for the Meridian, all of us with any kind of interest in serious poetry owe the editors an enormous debt. This anthology (for the want of a better noun) contains material that is vital to a full understanding and appreciation of All Things Cambridge. It also opens up a challenge to those of us who like to think that we’re radical and engaged in our poetics. Because of this, I intend to try and deal with the material in a number of instalments because (as with Celan) a single account would be very long and doing this over time means that I can have the luxury of changing my mind.

In my head the English Inelligencer (EI) is a kind of Ur-text marking out the time at which British Poetry got serious. I’d come to this view by reading the views and memories of others as none of this material has been generally available. ‘Certain Prose’ (as you might guess) focuses on the prose as the majority of the poetry is available elsewhere.

Neil Pattison addresses the question of EI’s status in his introduction:

Its disintegrating pages have acquired a shabby mystique as avant-garde incunabula, and scholarly pearls extracted from its fugitive pages, along with items of gossip about its protagonists, have acquired a high value in some quarters. This unlikely glamour has not served the Intelligencer well, and has perhaps obscured the worksheet’s true value, which lies not just in the role it played in the lives of its renowned contributors, but also in its underexplored salience for our understanding of the contested place and role of literary poetry in the culture of contemporary modernity, the problems of which The English Intelligencer may pose more acutely than any other journal of its time.

One of the oddest contributions collected here is from Peter Riley entitled “Working Notes on British Prehistory or Archaeological Guesswork One” which treats the end of the Neolithic as the point where humanity took a wrong turn. It also surveys much of the archaeological of the time and puts forward a number of hypotheses. In his introduction Neil describes this as Riley’s “noble, askew and arguably isolated attempt” to translate his personal ‘treasured dream’ into a theoretical position. This may or may not be the case, my main interest is that it was responded to in some detail by Prynne.

Before proceeding, I need to make a personal disclosure. I know a bit about the Neolithic, my daughter spends her professional life prospecting potential Neolithic sites in Calabria and we have many interesting discussions about the period and what can be usefully said about it. These discussions (and some reading) have led me to the view that we still know very little and that there appears to be an inherent weirdness/otherness about what we do know. I am therefore immensely suspicious of any attempts to make concrete statements based (at best) on informed guesswork or from our perspective rather than theirs. Riley’s title does recognise the guesswork element but he also puts forward a narrative which is an extended guess. One of the more perceptive hypotheses that he puts forward is about the primacy of the circle and circularity and how this may be connected to the fat lady cult that characterises much of the period

This concern with the distant past may not appear to have much to do with poetry and this may well be the case. I would however draw your attention to the inclusion of a work about stone circles in the ‘reference cues’ list appended to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ and that a paragraph is quoted in the last parts of the poem and to the related ‘A Note on Metal’ which first appeared in the EI and was published in the Bloodaxe ‘Poems’ even though it isn’t a poem. I’ll return to these shortly but first I’ll deal with Prynne’s response.

The first thing to note is his prose style hasn’t changed much over the years, we get the occasional sharp bite and the idiosyncratic use of certain words. The second is that his opposing view is quite clearly stated, he gently points out that trade rather than invasion is more likely to have been responsible for changes during this period- a view that has been reasonably standard for the last 50 years even though we still haven’t got our brain fully around what we might mean by ‘trade’ in the Neolithic.

The other good news is that I think that I agree with most of what he says although I’m still puzzling over his use of ‘motive’. Most discussion of the Neolithic revolves around two central concepts- landscape and ritual. The cynic in me would want to suggest that this is mainly because of the big Neolithic monuments/structures that are thought to have been constructed with reference to the surrounding landscape and that these very visible monuments are thought to have been a venue for ritualistic practices.

Let’s start with Prynne on the trap of imposing our own ideas and world-view on the past:

My instinct is that the distribution of local instances of fact which can be grouped (pot and implement typology, for example) has led to imposed ideas of region that are foreign in pre-literate landscape and which are (by unacknowledged retrojection) based on common-law practice concerning land-ownership.

This seems reasonably sensible although the explanation of how this mistake comes about is a little too refined for my liking- I don’t think ‘retrojection’ works in straight lines.

‘Motive’ appears to be a key term in Prynne’s response:

But we have no evidence at all for the tribal pressure of motive, especially when this related to magical practice and manic excursion.

By motive here I don’t mean anything like that legal-ethical notion of willed predisposition, based on the idea of extension dominated by acts of choice. I mean much more the recognition of possibility as a source of compulsion, pointing one’s body towards the land of the dead or what other definition the guardian decrees. And in this sense the divination of purpose is mantic, as it was for Ezekiel, what a man does is what he thus comes to understand he has always desired. The question of future time (what next) is a specific dimension of landscape, which is the magic of parts locked into the physical extension of the whole.

I freely confess to getting lost just after ‘a source of compulsion’. A few paragraphs later there is this:

I think in that sense that the stone circle or avenue is a very discreet and accurate adjustment of these two forces, of presence as the ritual consecration of motive (in the sense I’ve explained earlier). If both movement and memory are sacred arts, then a place which is the same place accumulates special force, just as the body does for the variety of conditions it can reach out for (Shammanistic transport, for example, or starvation or sexual fulfilment). A stone circle at the intersect of several movement-patterns was thus already ritualised, as an act of recognition repeated to the point where it became socially valid, the social disposition of megaliths rehearsing the interchange between accident and purpose carried to its highest pitch. I could see that as a mechanism for hanging on to sanity, or at least for doing so without collapsing into gutless boredom. As you say, movement and situation incorporated, unlike the utterly trivial predictive charades enacted (so it seems) at Stonehenge, by some Gaullist astronomer. That kind of fixation on calendrial accuracy is the deadly enemy of quality: the middle-class merchant fingering his wrist-watch.

I’d like to point out that Avebury is more attractive than Stonehenge because it is more complex and even weirder. Speculation about both sites is good fun and can be quite entertaining but it is always going to be speculation simply because the evidence can be read in so many competing ways. This isn’t to say that I dislike the above speculation primarily because it indicates that an amount of original thought has gone into these issues. This concern with the landscape and the quality of human activity in it is reiterated in ‘News of Warring Clans’ from 1977 and ‘Field Notes’ which is Prynne’s detailed commentary on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ which shows a great deal of careful thought about these issues, especially about the physical experience of being situated in and embodied by the landscape.

We now come to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ and Richard Bradley’s essay, ‘The Land, the Sky and the Scottish Stone Circle’ which is one of the reference cues and is quoted verbatim at the end of ‘Dreamboats’:

Yet the recursion cannot be close since the stop key is well out
beyond reach, even in transform assignment. A language may die
also from the record of currency exchange to full pair-convert
transumed in surrender value, decalibrated: or the travel line
from matter to fancy of spirit is invert and pyretic: smoke for the
mirror, tenant creamery.

The original cremation pyre was placed where the heavens met the earth
and where the inhabitants of nearby settlements could observe smoke rising into
the air. It was also located in the one place on the hilltop where the position of a
distant mountain would correspond to that of the summer moon. The subsequent
development of the site gave monumental expression to this relationship,
gradually focusing that particular alignment until it was narrowed down to the
space between the tallest stones.

The corridor is and to be the avenue, from particulate vapour to
consign into bedrock, transit of durance it is a formative exit
in naturalised permission, solemn grade-one rigmarole, better
Wiglaf's rebuke and insurance payout. To be this with sweet
song and dance in the exit dream, sweet joy befall thee is by
rotation been and gone into some world of light exchange, toiling
and spinning and probably grateful in this song.

As might be expected, Bradley’s essay says more about this particular stone circle than appears in the quote but the extant evidence does suggest a conscious link between the circle/pyre, the mountain and the sky. The mountain (Lochnagar) is also significant because it is the only visible peak that retains its snow for ‘much’ of the year.

I’ve said in the recent past that I haven’t worked out what Prynne may be intending with ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ but I continue to feel that being and non-being are an intertwined theme. The above seems to confirm that and to underline Prynne’s long-standing interest in bodies and monuments in the landscape. Incidentally, the ‘sweet joy’ quote is from Blake’s ‘Infant Joy’ and Wiglaf was king of Mercia in the ninth century but I have no idea what his ‘rebuke’ might be about…….

On the next occasion I think that I might have to address Neil’s claims about the contested role of literary poetry and try and work out the difference between the literary and the non-literary- any ideas on this would be wamrly welcomed.

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Withheld Poetry

I have been thinking about this for a while but what follows is more tentative speculation than anything with definition or clarity, I’m also likely to change my mind. Last year I wrote about Joe Luna’s contribution to the ‘Better than Language’ collection and remarked that what mattered was the stuff going on outside and around the text rather than the words themselves. I’ve since elaborated on this a little but it now occurs to me that several of our better poets are in the business of withholding or making poems that function as a collection of items/events that are incidental to what’s being talked about.

This line of thought started with a discussion with Neil Pattison about obscurity, I felt that one particular reference was far too obscure for it’s own good- Neil responded by pointing out that this might be secret rather than obscure. This was followed by coming across Luke Roberts’ observation of the ‘deliberate secrecy’ deployed in the work of Francesca Lisette.

I probably need to be a bit more detailed, I’m not talking about allusion in the sense that a phrase can allude or point to something else. The material that is withheld isn’t signposted at all except by the fact that it isn’t present and the poem that we have appears to be what is left when the’secret’ has been removed.

Before this gets hopelessly and incoherently abstract, I’m going to take refuge in some examples of what I’m failing to describe. In my head, Luna, Pattison and Lysette are the most conscious/deliberate withholders at the moment so I’ll use a poem from each. This is Joe Luna’s poem from the ‘document’ containing this and poems by Francesca Lisette, Jonny Liron and Timothy Thronton which was published by Grasp last year. The blurb says “Joe Luna’s poem is a singular work made from revisions and concanetations of smaller poems, written alongside and sometimes in response the others here”. This is the first half of the third part of this singular work;

with silliness & love taut multiplies
the trauma that produces humans. here
is my head so bleed it will you make my
infant mouth stay nothing: there, if I am
fully human, what goes in and how
the square can phrase that with a charge
of infantilism or crack: head's mother
tongue's cheap trick, selling short what's smashing
but prevented, love: given half a chance
who wouldn't harm what represents us,

I should perhaps have mentioned that this collection is a response to this government’s enlightened approach to the funding of higher education but that really isn’t much help with what might be going on here. The astute amongst you will have noticed that sense seems to have been deliberately disrupted or damaged without quite veering off into the completely abstract. The reader (me) is thus left with the impression of something which has been excised from the poem but still exists outside it. This notion is further enhanced by the considered use of punctuation- the full stop in the second line is not a typo and is followed by the lower case ‘h’. Normally I might find this kind of thing overly clever but this is more than redeemed by the degree of invention and the careful use of language that allows for this kind of disruption.

What’s also remarkable is the shifting nature of the proximity to sense/clarity, of how we almost know what “here / is my head so bleed it will you make my / infant mouth stay nothing” refers to or means even though we never can.

I’ve said this before but Francesca Lisette writes stunning poetry that manages to combine defiance with invention and humour.

Coincidentally, Mountain Press have just published ‘Teens’ which appears to gather together most of Lisette’s work. This is all of ‘Descension’:

fractionate uglies pass under mucked,
where eyes are, where palms grit to bless.
lunar spacings fringe the raw velvet
revolving the splintered crease.
[pin intervention]
now decidedly a field: turned-up,
caught in buttercup
high confessional
black touching dank silver
working to undermine the grease
side-guided,
jellyish strapped-in. blue myths wheel and caw;
bones stream in particles winded
caesarian synapse gives out: gives over

afterwards the shadowed wreckage
bacon won breeds eyes silkily
intentionally fathered.
cloud-set skin replaces knives and worm-wracked pentagonal
it is the laugh, the hairshine.
throttles on vampirically.
features too, escape voluble knowledge
all the undoings dozed out while braised:
carrying this kiss of initials like a stricture

Is this what Roberts means by “deliberately secret”? I’d like to put it another way, the above contains brilliant moments of verbal invention and enough indicators to allow us an informed guess as to what might have gone on but this can only ever be a ‘might’ because the language never quite gets to be formed even though it gives the impression of wanting to. It could be argued that this is just another piece of dense oddness but (as with Luna) what’s important is what isn’t said and we can only catch this at the corners and edges of the lines.

Neil Pattison’s ‘Slow Light’ is one of the best poems written in the last ten years. This has primarily to do with the ‘voice’ of the poem and the determined urgency that it contains but it also withholds in a way that is slightly more nuanced than Luna and Lisette. This is a section that makes my point:

Scope under the silicon tint is tinfoil, patches
thumbnail, scan. Rubric, stinted, component of
this limb
is related to this joint
radiant proteins, bonding in a dream, stripped
out in light : tint qualifies, the eagles venturing
acquisition only ; stability maps in to sculpted
enamels, restriction polishes up as belt, teething
ulterior surface, desaturated : is tinfoil, scoped
then selective, this humane break in the product
line. Tracking its metric, folding, cursive, the scan
is firebreak, no quality witheld, the stinted whole.

This is grown-up poetry that isn’t for the faint-hearted, it’s got to be worked with, the reader has to identify the things that aren’t being said which without doubt are much more terrible than the things that are. In fact I’d like to suggest that Neil’s withholding is to do with heightening and intensifying our anxiety and pushing us toward action or at least a response to the Bad Things that are almost described.

Another thought occurs to me- this keeping back isn’t done so that the reader can fill the gaps with whatever his or her experiences might suggest. These are real and tangible things that are not being said and that might be the point because the world is full to bursting with things that are made clear, are made plain to such an extent that we think we know lots about what there is to know. Only we don’t know very much at all and these poets are very good at bringing us back to the many absences and gaps that we need to recognise and pay attention to.

Archive of the Now and the poetry archive

Before I get on to the rest of the readings on the Archive site, I thought I’d take this opportunity to think about things archival. My interest in the archive is twofold, I recognise the creative potential for interrogating the status and position of that which is archived and I’m also attracted to the promise of completeness and authenticity that the archived dangles before me.

The pundits and experts tell us that the next ‘phase’ of the web will be about data and about being able to access data in ways that the individual user specifies. The other trend that applies to us creative types is what the web is doing to authenticity so there will be this increasing tension between poetry archives and the authentic.

To return to the Archive of the Now, what follows will be known from now on as the ‘Reitha Pattison Test’ and it will be referred to throughout the academy as definitive. Attentive readers will know that the last piece referred to my (personal, subjective, prejudiced, cantankerous etc) preference for having the text in front of me when listening to poetry. I also made the point that this was especially important with complex material. This particular entirely objective test requires you (yes, you) to go to the relevant page, play ‘Ah’ and listen to it as carefully as you can. Then play ‘Seven’ whilst reading the text that’s displayed towards the bottom of the page. I think this makes my point- you now have a much clearer idea of what the second poem might be about because you are are of line endings, capitalised text etc and you can go over the text again just as you can the recording.

I think I’ve said before, in the context of ‘Some Fables’ that Reitha produces some of the most intelligent poetry that we’ve got, a poetry that works firmly within the tradition/corpus/discourse/canon but in an incredibly contemporary way that also manages to be incredibly light and graceful. All of the poems here may be translations but they are also new and stunningly original pieces of work and anybody who is in the business of reviving sprezzatura deserves universal recognition and gratitude. I also need to confess that I haven’t yet read her essay on ‘The Corn Burned by Sirius’ (which I think was in Glossator’s Prynne issue) but it will be read this week as I now notice that the first heading is ‘Boethius’ who is referenced in ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ which is one of my current objects of struggle.

We now need to turn to the J H Prynne page, I’m pleased to report that the reading of ‘Refuse Collection’ is clear and more or less matches the poem in my head both in terms of pace and the level of anger. The introduction is remarkable for Prynne’s quasi-embrace of reader reception and his (more predictably) negative view of poets talking about their own work. I found these elements so striking that I will be addressing them at length in the near future. With regard to the reading, I’m prepared to accept that having the text to hand is not essential but (becuase of the fast pace) some of the words can be misheard. The text is available in Quid 13 which Barque are selling for £1.00 (although I can’t find how to place this in the basket) – the link to just a copy of the poem is now dead. I can forward a text copy to those who haven’t got a copy.

I’ve said in the past that ‘Refuse Collection’ is a superb piece of polemic and stands apart from the post-Brass material in terms of its unambiguous clarity and the palpable rage.

The Luke Roberts page is a reasonably representative selection of his very impressive work. The recordings are clear and of good quality but I would ask you to consider whether the or not the reading of the first two stanzas of ‘Terraform Lecture Notes’ is made more reachable by having the text at the bottom of the page.

The other really odd thing is the fact that the recording of ‘Colossal Boredom Swan Song’ is incomplete, the last three words (imitation of flight) are cut off/absent/not there so that the poem ends with ‘tiresome’ which doesn’t make very much sense especially as the ‘im’ of ‘imitation’ is recorded/audible.

Even though he chose not to take part, in my head Roberts is one of the brightest stars of what I think of as the Better than Language poets. Listening to these four poems has made me realise that I failed to do full justice to ‘False Flags’ in January and that I need to try again to give it the readerly attention that it deserves.

With regard to Keston Sutherland, I think I need to make a kind of retraction. At some time is the reasonably distant past I made the observation that Keston reads too quickly and that the force/gist of what is said thereby loses some impact. These recordings of some of the earlier work show a bit more balance but I think I’m now of the view that Keston’s occasionally ‘superabundant’ approach actually requires this kind of supercharged reading bacause one of the things that the superabundant is ‘about’ is the sheer impossibility of holding on to information/language/stuff that seems to bombard us to the point of submersion. I hadn’t thought of Sutherland as a sound artist but I will draw your attention to whatever is going on with ‘Deletes Sex’ and ‘Mincemeat Seesaw Fit B’. I am taking an increasing interest in the word/sound mode and these are both quite startling primarily because I’m only familiar with the ‘straight’ text versions and these do fundamentally change the way that I think about the poems.

It is a pity that nothing has been added since 2005 because he’s produced some of the most important material in the last seven years. I know that there are recordings elsewhere on the web but it would be good/appropriate to have these in one place. Listening to these has returned me to the texts with a fresh pair of eyes and I am grateful for the opportunity to pay more attention to the things that came before ‘Hot White Andy’.

In the very near future I’m going to reflect on those names that were unfamiliar and those that I should have paid more attention to, especially Peter Riley, John Hall and Holly Pester.

The ice cream in Luke Roberts’ pockets.

I have been intending to write about this particular ice cream since the publication of ‘Egg Hunt Triumph’ in the first issue of the Cambridge Literary Review in 2009. This was to go along the lines of “Luke Roberts is a young poet of enormous talent who deserves a much wider readership”. I’d come to this conclusion because of the exuberance of the language and the quite original wit. I would have used this as an example:

Was there a garden, was there
ever ice cream in my pockets,
repeating others, steam pressed
live & in lying you're at work,
crying and masturbating, you want
to be in the world, locked safety
to your body pressed in a cubicle
you have so many
feelings,
so much stuff.

The police come in and shoot you.

Then I would have drawn attention to the ice cream as startling and breathtaking before going on to extol the brilliance of ‘you have so many / feelings, / so much stuff’ and gone on to talk about the advantages of properly used understatement and juxtaposition and expressed the view that messing about with words on lines can be quite mannered and annoying but seems perfectly appropriate here.

I didn’t do any of this but now Mountain Press have published Luke’s “False Flags” which everybody should buy- along with Timothy Thornton’s ‘Jocund Day’ from the same publishers.

I’m going to try a sampled poem-by-poem account of why we all need to pay attention to Roberts’ work:

Colossal Boredom Swan Song

This might be about poetry since it contains a fair number of poem related terms, including ‘New British Poetry’ which is followed by ‘warring clams’ which I’m taking to be a reference to Prynne and all things Cambridge. However it might also be about swans as in real swans or as in poetic / literary swans or big birds in general as pelicans and geese are also mentioned. There is a welcome absence of foreign words and phrases, the only word that I needed to look up, Axolotl, which got me into neoteny and the literary tradition relating to salamanders in general. As can be seen, there’s a lot going on in this poem. Here’s the sixth (out of seven) stanza-

Repair my aim. The cutlery draw is open and the forks
are dull. Galileo swoops from the sky and kills the whole farmyard,
tearing the throats of geese with his universe, holding
down pigs, ripping the tails from rabbits to fashion
a new love. In a boat made of knives, he walks through
the river saying: 'living is so hard is so easy'. Tender
goes the song, swans high five, they can't high five,
the weak slap down the strong.

As can be seen, this isn’t exactly straightforward but it is inventive and sets off a series of thoughts and possible connections across the rest of the poem. There’s also something deeply strange going on (‘ripping the tails from rabbits to fashion / a new love’) and this strangeness emerges in most of the other poems in a way that I find quite compelling.

Egg Hunt Triumph.

The title may or may not refer to the seventh poem in Prynne’s ‘Pearls That Were’ sequence which, as Pete Smith has pointed out, is itself a version of a poem by Che Qianzi whose work has been described by Maghiel Van Crevel as both nonsensical and breathtaking with a style that is “light-footed, but also tenacious and capable of generating a dream-like, unique experience” and it may be that this is one of the ‘keys’ to Roberts’ work. I’ll try and show how this light-footed tenacity is brought into play. This is another stanza from ‘Egg Hunt Triumph’:

where I rectangle
do you
immolate, well
sometimes, attempting jokes
the room
gets small and dies. We were eating
soup. Everyone stared & the Tamils
starved themselves to death outside.

The next stanza ends with “being that thin is probably / not going to be okay”. What is clear is that this poem expresses more than a degree of angry political engagement that also does fascinating things with language- what exactly might it mean to rectangle and is it okay to attempt jokes if you’re a room?

The Sonar Deal

This poem is from the ‘False Flags’ sequence that takes up the second part of the collection. The note at the back tells us that a false flag operation is one in which one group tries to ascribe some act of violence to another and that ‘The Sonar Deal’ takes its point of departure the first 200 lines of Pound’s Canto 96.

The sad truth is that I’ve never managed to get that far with Pound but have now sped read the first four or five pages and what appears to be going on in some kind of faux archival chronology concerning the transition fro the Roman Empire to what we now refer to as the early medieval period. Mention is made of several emperors and the circumstances of Charlemagne’s rise to glory with bits of more contemporary / current stuff being thrown in. I must stress that this is only the flimsiest of impressions and not intended as a proper account.

The epigraph to ‘The Sonar Deal’ reads like some Tudor do-it-yourself spycraft kit penned by Thomas Phelippes but probably isn’t. The poem itself is an extended riff on the end of the cold war and the respective Soviet and American empires. Repeated reference is made to the Fischer/Spassky encounter and what became of both protagonists. Towards the end we get this-

                        The Post=War of 
sport and architecture. The Post-War of
coups and targeted take outs,
fake out a frontier
fake outdoor palm trees
and we're back in Iraq,
providing dates
with all the trees beheaded
Vague technical-sounding lament
and I go nostalgic, leaning for context, metal stocks
by the boat-bridge over Euphrates.

I freely confess to an interest in this kind of stuff, I’m of the view that we need to have a clearer understanding of empire and of imperial behaviours and this is the kind of intelligent and considered analysis than can and should (must) be expressed in poetic form. There’s a degree of verbal ingenuity and Prynnian wordplay going on but we also have a line about going nostalgic and leaning for context which encapsulates brilliantly the means by which we go gently grasping our way to some kind of personal sense.

I think I need to say that the rest of the poems are just as good as these three and that ‘False Flags’ should give all of us some further degree of confidence in the future of British verse.

This is a mere £6.50 from Mountain Press. Once again, there is no excuse.